Although I have maintained a personal policy of not criticizing those who have passed this mortal coil, recent events have forced me to modify my position. In the last few months media outlets of every kind have gone through an orgy of admiration for three fallen Americans: Sen. Ted Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and Michael Jackson. Based on the continual coverage of these three men, you would have to assume they were candidates for beatification.
But what this media festival overlooked, what press myrmidons often overlook, is how flawed each of these people were. How can one overlook Mary Jo Kopechne, the young lady whose life was cut short by the senator’s desire to maintain his reputation? How can one overlook the insidious role of Cronkite in undermining the American war effort in Vietnam? And how can one excuse the drug addled, pedophilia of Jackson?
That isn’t to say these people didn’t have modest accomplishments; but these were accomplishments bounded by flaws — deep seated flaws. The reason to mention this matter is that a nation needs heroes, people to admire and emulate. Whatever one thinks about these three men, they are not heroes, notwithstanding overblown eulogies, and they are certainly not worthy of emulation.
One of the nation’s problems — as I see it — is that false prophets are easily superordinated into heroes by the exaggerated claims of media moguls. What one observes is the magnification of modest achievement into full blown adoration. The famous who are cult figures are conflated with the infamous. In fact, there is scarcely a distinction between the two words.
This raises the curious question of who does one admire in a society and culture that puts a premium on being well-known? The anonymous person working in a hospice to assist the terminally ill is in my judgment a genuine hero. But he will not receive a television funeral when he passes from this life. How does one decide whom to admire when the airwaves tell us that a celebrity, however flawed, is worthy of our respect?
I for one do not respect Kennedy, Cronkite, and Jackson. If anything, the public tributes have left me with an empty feeling that our culture is adrift in mediocrity, sophistry, and relativism. It seems as if we cannot distinguish between heroes and frauds, the famous and infamous, the self-indulgent and the magnanimous. The spirit of a nation is sapped by the obsession with marginal people elevated to the heights of Mount Olympus thralldom.
At Kennedy’s funeral service President Barack Obama compared him to Daniel Webster, as the two greatest senators in American history. This hyperbole may be understandable since former presidents and the Kennedy family were in attendance, but on a serious level the claim is ludicrous. Webster was among the most gifted speakers the Senate has ever had. Kennedy demonstrated a halting and ineffective pattern of speech. Webster had a brilliant and fertile mind. Kennedy, by any standard, was a marginal and predictable thinker.
In the age of false prophets, you can get away with these comparisons. The public rarely knows the full story and, by and large, doesn’t care to know. Jackson will be remembered for the “Thriller” album and his “moonwalk;” Cronkite for his mellifluous voice and sign-off. But is that enough to put them in the pantheon of heroes? And when we do so, what harm do we cause those who genuinely deserve heroic status — the young man who gave their lives defending the nation; the tireless workers who maintain national prosperity; the hospital attendants who tend to the sick.
America is exceptional because so many labor in anonymity to help others. As I see it, these are the real heroes, the ones who should be famous through example, not the false prophets who are merely overblown characters on a television screen.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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